New Afghan Law a Dramatic Abrogation of Women’s Rights








Afghan President Hamid Karzai
recently signed a law outlining gravely regressive rights infringements for
Shiite women, to outcry in Afghanistan and around the world.  The last time the world was as appalled by
events in unfolding Afghanistan was when the Taliban began making inroads in
the country in the mid-1990s and imposed its diktat everywhere they left
footprints. The horror was more specifically in reaction to their imprint on
women’s rights or the restrictions on women. From constraining medical care and
banning employment, education, and free movement in the public sphere, the Taliban’s
power and control over women was absolute. The punishment for non-compliance
included public executions, stoning and flogging. The exceptions were few and
far between – for instance, widows in the poppy-rich province of Kandahar (also
the Taliban’s traditional bastion) who were allowed to tend to their poppy crop
— and came not from an understanding of the widows’ financial insecurity but
rather out of the militia group’s own dependence on the illegal poppy harvest for
funding their campaigns.

Over a decade
later, despite seven years of NATO presence to achieve normalcy in the violence-scarred
country and against the background of a democratic government, the world
watches in shock yet again – and, quite ironically, not for very different
reasons. The collective dismay and outrage over the Taliban regime did not
translate into much for the Afghan women in the 1990s; it took a 9/11 for the
world to "rescue" them from atrocities institutionalized via the Taliban’s ministry of
vice and virtue, leaving behind festering wounds of fear and brutality that are
yet to heal.

Now, under a
democratically elected government – which the US and its allies helped install –
the world watches, stunned yet again, at the recent
‘Afghan Shiite Personal Status Law,’
which, in addition to dictating the
conditions for marriage, divorce, inheritance, education, employment and free movement (the law says women can only
leave home with the explicit permission of their husbands except in certain
emergencies), also dictates sexual activity within marriage for women, thereby
legalizing marital rape and gives custody of children to fathers and
grandfathers. (Article 132 mandates that "the wife is bound to give a positive
response to the sexual desires of her husband." Furthermore, if her husband is
not travelling or sick, the wife is required to have sex with him at least
every fourth night, the only exception being the wife’s own illness.) Article
133 states, "the husband can stop the wife from any unnecessary act." Wifely duties also include "making herself up" or "dressing up" for her husband. In
addition, the legal age of marriage for Shiite women has been lowered from
eighteen to sixteen. The law consists of
approximately 250 detailed restrictions that apply to the minority Shia
community only, comprising 15% of the total Afghan population, making the invasion of personal space and privacy complete.

Quite
ironically, the Hazaras, most of whom constitute the Shia minority of
Afghanistan, have been one the groups that have had fewer restrictive freedoms for women when it comes to education and
employment, even in the post-Taliban era of limited liberty. Many of the important bureaucratic, administrative or political
positions held by Afghan women in the country are often represented by Shia
Hazara women. For instance, Afghanistan’s only woman governor and mayor belong to this community,
as does the head of the Afghan Human Rights
Commission. Over the years they have also grown their presence in the
entertainment industry, whether it be Afghanistan’s
version of "American Idol,"  the "Afghan Star" or as veejays of MTV-style programs.  This progress hasn’t been without backlash, as
evidenced in the controversial and sensational murder of Shaima
Rezayee
, who was amongst the first Afghan women to be seen publicly without
a headscarf post-Taliban. Hazara women do not wear full-body covering burqas. Thus,
not only does the law legalize and institutionalize oppression of women but
appears to be designed to encourage the very men who have opposed women’s oppression to degrade women (wives) of their
community.



Currently, many of those opposing the law believe that the law was conceptualized by conservative religious radicals and members of the
political and administrative elite who, in the past, have consistently targeted
women’s rights and free speech initiatives in the country, including opposing
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are the same groups of men who
continue to support polygamy and the right of elderly men to marry very young
girls – without any age restriction – and blame the spread of AIDS in the country
on soap operas and music videos on Afghan TV; men
with pasts of brutal violence who have themselves been embroiled in
controversies like sexual abuse, horrendous human rights violations, mass rapes
and sexual violence and yet enjoy political power as they occupy seats in
Parliament, important political appointments and hence critical legislative
powers.

National and international
outrage over the law has delayed its passage; President Karzai, in damage
control mode, admitted to "problems" in the law, which quite evidently violates
the rights of women in every way imaginable. While he reiterates his commitment
to equal rights for men and women as enshrined in the Afghan constitution, the
timing of the law has been politically linked to the forthcoming elections in
August. He is seen as an embattled president hoping to score with the powerful
right-wing radicals in his run-up to re-election. As critics around the world
are accusing the President of selling out to extremists, ironically though
hardly surprisingly, praise for him comes from a disquieting quarter – the
Taliban – which is often described as an "enemy of Afghanistan" by the
president himself.

Provisions under the Afghan
constitution allow Shiites to pass their own family laws based on their legal
traditions.



If such a law is
indeed passed, it, in effect, opens a Pandora’s box of similar
discriminatory laws, in the name of maintaining ethnic identity and diversity
by religious conservatives amidst other minority ethnic groups.

The recent violence in Kabul
against a group of
women protesting the marriage law
points to how culture and tradition can
clash with critical issues of reproductive and sexual health, especially in a
country where medical facilities and care are not as easily accessible to
women. The march organized by women’s rights activists and attended by mostly
young women was swamped by counter-protesters – both men and women – who pelted
stones at the demonstrators. The law has backers who accuse "foreigners" of meddling
in Afghan affairs. But can the issue be simplified to the rights of the Shiite
community versus human rights with regard to women? Many groups have
now jumped into the fray to work
out proposals taking into account Islamic traditions of fairness, justice,
tolerance to revise the controversial legislation, focusing on reform within
the Family Code. That the family law has to be developed keeping the rights and
health of both women and children at the forefront is even more critical in a
war ravaged society where suicide
rates
amongst women have shown a phenomenal increase; women increasingly
see this as the only escape from the violence they face with some hospitals
reporting as many as 600 suicide attempts in a year. With one of the highest
fertility rates in Asia, as an average Afghan woman bears 6-7 children,
according to the UNFPA, the fervent opposition to contraceptives and condoms by
conservative groups makes the situation even more precarious. The infant
mortality rate is estimated at 127 per 1,000 live births. And the maternal mortality
rate
too is high, with at least two Afghan women dying from
pregnancy-related complications every hour. Additionally, according to recent
statistics about 25% of women in the country are subjected to sexual violence; 30.7%
suffer physical violence, in most cases by husbands or other family members and
another 30% suffer from psychological violence. Against this extreme
vulnerability and with Afghanistan the opium granary of the world, opium abuse
has also registered an increase amidst women to numb the pain and compensate
for the inadequate health care available to them.

The international community
played a role during the drafting of the Afghan constitution, ensuring seats for
women in Parliament, and now this is the time to follow up on those principles that
they enshrined for the Afghan people. Seven years into international troop
presence and fighting the Al Qaeda and Taliban it is time that pressure is also
mounted on institutions within the
government to promote and develop a culture of human rights. Countries that
have invested directly in development funds for women’s rights and family law
reform should hold the Afghan government accountable for progress in this
direction. In the past, every time the President was attacked for the Taliban’s
resurgence in the country, he was quick to point out the steps forward with regard
to women’s health, rights and representation and girls’ education. The new law
now makes bogus all such claims even as it clearly breaks the promises made by
Kabul to the international community over protection of human rights.

Moving forward on human rights
for women has to be a significant component of the international engagement in
Afghanistan – especially since that was one of the pretexts of direct military
engagement in Afghanistan apart from the "war on terror" and the "war on drugs."
While funding governments have long been careful to keep a distance from
domestic policy decisions in Afghanistan, this might not be the time to be
evasive using the pretext of cultural difference. If a stable sustainable
democracy is the goal, Afghan women have to be viewed as a critical
component towards the achievement of that goal and not as mere sacrifices at
the altar of immediate political maneuvers.

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